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Opinion: A New Approach to Dealing with ISIS

French fighters leave for strikes against ISIS targets in Syria on Nov. 15, 2015. French Ministry of Defense Photo

French fighters leave for strikes against ISIS targets in Syria on Nov. 15, 2015. French Ministry of Defense Photo

The desire for some expressive use of military power to release pent-up anger in France and the Western world in response to the latest terrorist attack in Paris is reaching a new level. France responded with strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, ISIL and also called Daesh) targets over the weekend.

While tactically effective, this is just more of same type of attack that coalition forces execute every day in this region. Herewith an attempt to objectively examine the strategic risks and rewards for turning up the heat on Daesh. The lens of history, and the timeless truths of strategy, are used as guides.

The war theorist Carl Von Clausewitz was a staunch advocate for the concentration of force to defeat the enemy. Clausewitz also advised that in wars where enemies are “of very unequal strength” victory and/or peace can be achieved by first creating “the improbability of victory”; the second condition is establishing the war’s “unacceptable cost.”

The fact of the matter is that NATO’s full military potential has been restrained in the fight against terrorism in all of the post-911 wars. There are good reasons why this was the case in the nation-building battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan and Iraq (2003-2010), but the context and conditions for fighting Daesh are different, and the type of operations and tactics should therefore be reconsidered.

In the early years of World War II the U.S. Army Air Forces was committed to precision bombing and made every effort to avoid civilian targets. Even the newsreel footage of the famed April 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo reminded viewers that “the American bombers were careful to avoid schools, hospitals, and civilian targets.” Likewise, the 8th Air Force in England persisted in its efforts to conduct precision daylight bombing against Germany even when the losses to American aircraft and crews to German air defenses were staggering.

Then, as now, Western culture drove this “humane” approach to warfare. It was only after years of bitter warfare against an intractable enemy, that the United States joined the British in resorting to massive fire-bombing raids that burned dozens of Japanese and German cities to the ground. Are we today at a similar juncture in a smaller scale, but against a no less intractable enemy?

It is noteworthy that those massive air raids alone did not win the war, but they succeeded in making large swaths of enemy territory unlivable. The cost was appalling—tens of thousands of people perished in the firestorms. But on the strategic level, the result of the massive bombing raids destroyed the morale of average citizens, created enormous internal problems for the enemy governments, and as a result many turned against their military and political rulers.

What is different about Daesh, when compared with al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, is that it claims to be a state. In its occupied territories it is attempting to function as a government and offer services needed by the populations that have fallen under their rule. No other country recognizes its self-declared state, but that is immaterial to the fact that it serves as the epicenter for terrorist operations.

Carpet bombing Daesh’s capital city, Raqqa, would demonstrate the full potential of NATO airpower, and take away the currently declared capital of the caliphate. Most important, the action abides by Clausewitz’ time-tested advice, raising the cost and making victory improbable for Daesh. A secondary effect, to those supporting or at least tolerating Daesh, is the clear message it sends: Daesh cannot protect you. If history serves as a guide, popular resistance to Daesh and rejection of its ideology will grow as more of Daesh-controlled man-made objects are turned back into rocks and minerals.

The counterarguments to this shift in tactics are many. Perhaps the most important one at the strategic level is the recognition that Daesh’s strategic center of gravity is not a place, or an army; rather, it is the idea of restoring the caliphate. It is not likely that Daesh will furl its black flags and go back to the farms and families if we turn their occupied lands into rubble—but it will find it very hard to find a place to call home.

In the Revolutionary War, the British learned the difficulty of fighting the idea of the “Glorious Cause.” More recently, the United States has spent the past 15 years confronting the ideology of the Taliban in Afghanistan and it’s not dead yet. So, even when cities under Daesh control are turned to rubble, the dream of the restored caliphate will live on in the hearts and minds of true believers. But the consequences of supporting that idea will push Daesh’s remnants far to the fringes, where neo-Nazis, Stalinists, and other extremists are forced to live by a world that violently opposes their views.

By unleashing the full power of NATO’s air forces the West can demonstrate that there is a high price to be paid for giving sanctuary to those tolerating or supporting Daesh forces. The strategic message delivered by B-52s and other NATO platforms is that the presence of Daesh will not just result in carefully planned surgical strikes using the smallest warhead needed to achieve the desired result; rather, these new tactics would mean that supporting or tolerating Daesh puts your entire city at risk of being destroyed. Admittedly, it’s a grim proposal, but there is a case to be made that our current strategy is not achieving the desired political objective.

The reported death of the notorious terrorist “Jihadi John” on Friday, and then Daesh’s leader in Libya, Abu Nadil, on Saturday (13-14 November) prove once again that unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes can score tactical victories, but as with al Qaeda and the Taliban, Daesh has proved resilient despite the attrition of leaders and countless foot soldiers. If in fact the majority of Daesh is “contained” in its self-proclaimed state, the state can then be held accountable for the terrorist actions they are sponsoring around the world. NATO has the capability to make the probability of a Daesh victory impossible by making the cost truly unacceptable.

  • They US may not have a choice cause we may be forced to work with Russia on getting rid of ISIS. The saying goes “The Enemy of my enemy is my friend” and that will come back to bite the US in the butt, if they don’t act now.

    • MiketheMarine

      We fought with, but not along side, Russia in WWII. It’s, simply, history repeating itself.

      • We maybe forced to work with Russia on this one.

  • Walter

    Sounds like an ‘old approach’ that worked. Ideas that work are not dumb ideas. At some point, the side that eventually prevails realizes that playing nice isn’t going to get us where we need to go.
    It is exactly the promise of not playing nice, think nuclear triad, that keeps the world peaceful. There comes a time when the population assumes culpability for the criminals they harbor. That time passed on 9/11/2001, until Islamists decide playing jihad is no fun we need to be in no holds barred mode just like they are…

    • Steve

      Exactly. CDR Dolan raises not a “new approach” but actually going back to the tried-and-true approach. That approach has worked for at least hundreds of years. What we do now –surgical strikes doesn’t work and hasn’t worked. It is just pablum for our own populace –see we are doing something, you don’t have a feckless government.

      The DoD reports on the “attacks” on IS were ridiculous to read. We struck a pickup truck with a light machine gun. We hit a field where a couple of fighters were training (“a training camp”). Pathetic.

      Frankly, I am surprised. I Usually CDR Dolan spouts the Obama Administration party line. Here he recognizes that what we are doing now is certainly not bringing about the results we want and may be doing the opposite.

      As we have seen in Paris, we just don’t have the luxury of pretending that war is something that it is not –clean, surgical, not impacting those supporting or just being around the enemy.

  • CharleyA

    The bombing of innocents is never acceptable.

    • Striz

      Sorry Charley – how do you define innocent. A populace that provides food, shelter, succor, and tacit approval of evil may include some that qualify, but the willingness to accept the bombing and brutal execution of innocents in Paris and DC will never stop, unless someone makes the tolerance unacceptable.

      • On Dre

        You suppose that the residence of raqqa in any way support ISIS? This is ignorant. Have you seen the flood of refugees heading to Europe? Those innocents you want to bomb are the same people only without the money or means to travel. ISIS wants the US to bomb civilians targets just like this article advocates. Don’t play the enemy’s game.

        • sferrin

          At some point one doesn’t have the luxury of playing nice. It’s easy to put one’s nose in the air and prattle on about “ignorance” while ensconced in your ivory tower. That doesn’t work. Not a single war has been won by playing nice, and letting the other guy dictate the rules.

          • On Dre

            Not a single war was won by being dumb either. We already did one ME war ignorant style. Lets not go for 0 for 2.

          • tpharwell

            You forget Yemen. 0-3.

          • sferrin

            When did we go to war in Yemen? Oh right. We didn’t.

          • MiketheMarine

            No. The USS Cole got blasted and sailors died and we did jack.

          • sferrin

            Last time I checked taking the gloves off wasn’t “being dumb”. The only times we’ve ended up in these “quagmires” is when we’ve tried to have a war and wring our hands at the same time. Doesn’t work. Never has, never will.

      • tpharwell

        Bombing innocents is never acceptable.

        • sferrin

          Wrong. If you feel like taking a bullet in the head because the other guy is using a human shield guess who gets dead and guess who gets to live another day to murder more people? You won’t be a noble dead man just a dumb one. Furthermore you’ll have contributed to a greater use of human shields and more dead innocents. Sorry if the truth is brutal but there it is.

          • tpharwell

            The truth is how I live my life and may die is quite beyond your control, and I would never allow a person such as yourself to speak for me nor decide it. I am sorry if you conflate war crimes or avoidable mistakes, such as the US attack on the Medecins sans Frontiere’s Hospital in Kunduz, with the just use of deadly force in all other circumstances. I understand that there happened to be some wounded Taliban fighters there. That’s is why the Afghans asked that it be shelled, and I guess you are fully at peace with that. Unfortunately, if the matter ever comes before a court, as some in France intend that it should, those responsible for it will stand impeached by the word of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who the very next day opined that it was, to say the least, against our “rules of engagement”.

            Troll somewhere else.

          • MiketheMarine

            Rules of Engagement? Are you a political science prof.? YOUR rules of engagement got a ton of MY friends killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no Rules of Engagement in a game of life or death. Its kill or be killed. There is no room for an attorney on a battlefield. If YOU want to go, unarmed, and Mirandize these barbarians, feel free. I want to go hunting.

  • Matt

    If we can’t figure out how to do what we must, others will. Russia and even France are both capable.

  • dave thewave

    If ISIS is making threats to commit terrorist acts in DC, I believe the softest target would be the Metro. There has got to be more security in the Metro systems particularly during busy time.

  • James Bowen

    Bombing by itself does not win wars (unless it is nuclear bombing), but the basic theme of this column is correct. War is by definition an ugly, messy business. The desire of Western nations to sanitize it, while appealing to our sensibilities, is also out of touch with reality. To win is to totally destroy one’s enemy or at the very least totally destroy their ability to fight. I was irked to see that the Navy GMT session on the Law of Armed Conflict was critical of the actions of General Sherman. Sherman’s strategies and the actions he took to implement them were devastatingly effective. If we are serious about destroying our enemies, we need to take actions that will no kidding destroy them. Turning our backs on the lessons of a man who arguably the greatest strategist the U.S. has ever had is not the way to do this.

  • vincedc

    When you have a lot of bombs and a lot of bombers, dropping the bombs is an easy solution. Unfortunately, the ISIS mentality is not the same as the German and Japanese. Their willingness to die for the cause is much stronger than the author believes. Collateral damage in a lot more acceptable in these extreme cultures than we are a used to.

    • sferrin

      So we do what? Send them flowers? That doesn’t work. What we’ve BEEN doing for the last ten years isn’t working. Clearly something needs to change. The only thing they understand is force and they should be crushed like bugs. Whatever it takes.

    • DVader

      Actually in its willingness to die for the cause ISIShas many similarities to the Japanese. And ideologically, especially in their embracing of genocide, they have too many similarities to the Nazis.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Time to take off the kid gloves with these cowardly murderers — napalm and flame throwers should be put back into the lineup. With them, you can run, but you can’t hide.

    • MiketheMarine

      I volunteer to go back. Give me my rifle and a fire team and move out of the way. I agree, it’s time to attack and end this abhorration.

      • publius_maximus_III

        MIKE, THANK YOU FOR SERVING YOUR COUNTRY.

        • MiketheMarine

          My pleasure. If they would only take a 45 year old with 6 fused vertebra and a bum knee who is a dead eye shot and an armorer back, I’d do it again.

          • Annette McLaren

            Where were you based before they sent you home?

          • MiketheMarine

            You mean which base here or over there?

          • Annette McLaren

            Over there

  • Irvin Lichtenstein

    The strategic bombing of Germany did not impede their war fighting capabilities until the anti-fuel campaigns immobilized parts of their mechanized forces. As with the British, de-housing as it was called, did not reduce the will to fight among the German population. The Japanese never admitted they surrendered, just the war became unwinnable. Their ideology was similar to the that of many extremists, die for the cause rather than surrender or cease fighting. We can reduce the population controlled by ISIS or whatever to ash in less than an hour, but we will not win the war.

  • On Dre

    The vast majority of ISIS fighters in raqqa are foreign born. Yet you want to level the neighborhoods of those who live under ISIS oppression. The propaganda coup of innocent civilians murdered by high flying bombers is just what ISIS wants. Remember, the vast majority of those killed in Syria is from Assad and much of that killing is done by aerial bombardment. Becoming the Assad on steroids will not win this war or bring the peace.

    • tpharwell

      Accord, thrice fold.

    • sferrin

      What’s your viable solution? Oh right, you don’t have one. Every last one of these MFers need to be executed on the spot. Period

  • DVader

    Actually these guys have several centers of gravity, including the ISIS command structure; Sunni Arab resentment of the Iraqi and Syrian Governments; Sunni-Shia religious hostility; ISIS rivalry with other jihadis, and ISIS relations with its subject populations. Unfortunately, none of these is targetable by air attack.
    Ultimately, does an enemy who looks down the barrel of your rifle and sees paradise even have a concept of “unacceptable cost?”

  • tpharwell

    An insanely misguided and depraved proposal. Truly an abomination.

    Daesh is not contained, and can not be. It is international. Syria and Iraq merely happen to be the places where most of its members have gone. And Raqqah is not its capitol by choice: it is a city of Syrians under occupation by Daesh. I commend to you the examples of London, and Monte Casino. Flatten and firebomb Raqqah, sure. Go ahead. The Russians would be game for that proposal, since their puppet is engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The rats will leave the ship, and return when it has been reduced to rubble. Meanwhile, thousands of non-combatants will be killed, making “Raqqah” a relying cry for Daesh, and making it the champion of a cause against us to which many more Muslims will flock. Go ahead, light the fuse on the Great Middle East War of 2016. To their crimes, add our own. Help the Russians and Iranians subdue our friends and enemies alike in Syria, so that they may break Turkey away from NATO and attack Israel.

    Perish the thought that anyone would put a stop to this war by an arms embargo. Let’s really add fuel to the fire.

    • sferrin

      “An insanely misguided and depraved proposal. Truly an abomination.”

      Definitely. Send them more flowers, that seems to be working fine. Judas. “Arms embargo.” ROFLMAO!!!!! Sorry but pacifists will never, I repeat, NEVER win this war. What a joke.

  • sferrin

    Bomb your allies. Brilliant plan.

    • MiketheMarine

      Is Saudi Arabia our ally? Or are they our go to store for foreign oil. Didn’t they finance 9/11? I’ve agreed with most all of your comments but this one. Turkey, I would let be, but Saudi Arabia should be blasted, and Quatar and Kuwait and Pakistan, for that matter.

    • emsteksrv

      Do you know who these “allies” are? Brilliant.
      Turkey is as bad an actor as Saudi Arabia. AS are Pakistan, the Gulf States and the North African States.

  • disqus_zommBwspv9

    Good Article, but Strange, People are talking about ways of dealing with ISIS, but the when the people come into play, They become refugees, forced out of the villages, towns, etc. the people who come from these places. They Need a place to live, not move away from their country their home. to places were many welcome them and more than a few hate them. Maybe created new places (towns) not camps. Save more time and effort, drill wells for water, put in sewers. Modular structures, schools. During the years I spent in the middle east and north africa. It was so sad to see families living in tent cities, or bomb out structures.

    • MiketheMarine

      You should join the Red Cross or Doctor’s without borders but it is not OUR job to build the world. We tried that in Iraq. It did not work. They hate us. They want us, infidels, dead. That INCLUDES you, Sir. Wake up.

      • disqus_zommBwspv9

        You obviously are talking to the wrong person I witnessed firsthand terrorist attacks in Naples Rome Barcelona Madrid-Tel Aviv Gibraltar Athens We called them car bombs back then . I have lost friends shipmates brothers to terrorist. To put the blame on an entire group of people is wrong The blame is on those who wish to kill me, you, your kids and your grandkids. I just feel bad when I see the orphans and those child who have been scar by terrorist. Maybe that is because I still have some humanity left. That is why my children are proficient with Firearms, bows and arrows, knives Spears axes and their hands. Two in the military one in university. CCDW holders all of us My kids are 6th generation American Military. Including those that fought for the South

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  • vincedc

    That makes sense….you carpet bomb and kill everyone to give them a message that Daesh can’t save them.

  • MiketheMarine

    Since when are Americans mealy mouthed and afraid to DEFEND freedom around the world? Why is our dear leader still releasing 5 Gitmo detainees to the UAE after these Paris attacks while he and his administration actively try to deport LEGAL Christian immigrants?
    Does anyone else believe that this is High Treason? Do I want a revolution? No, but I DO want the state Governors to start exercising their Constitutional Powers by impeaching Federal Appointees. Obama, Justice Kagan, Justice Sotomayor, Justice Roberts, Secretary Kerry and that thief at the IRS.
    Since when have Americans been afraid of a fight for good and peace and freedom??

    • Glen Hutchcraft

      Mike, Reagan would have never put up with these ugly nasty killers, I agree we will be removing those people mentioned in good time. I only hope it is not to late to deal with our national problems.

  • MiketheMarine

    Did we not outlaw Naziism? It’s time to outlaw Sunni Islam, Salafists and if that includes going to war with Iran, then so be it. Better now than after they have a nice, full nuclear arsenal.

  • MiketheMarine

    I do have one question for you esteemed gents and ladies. After 09/11/2001 we initiated Article 5 of the NATO Accord. President Holland declared war on ISIS. How does Article 5 of the NATO Accord play into this since our ally and fellow NATO member has declared war on a common enemy??

  • Burt Laub

    And how did Hitler’s bombing of London word out for him? Let’s not go down that path again.

    • MiketheMarine

      If Hitler’s rocket program and ME262’s were about 1 year sooner in completion, that war may have gone a whole lot differently.

  • Darrell Austin

    Washiton times Sep 8, 2004 – The French wanted Iraqi oil, and by establishing this friendship, … Saddam developed networks for illegal supplies to get around the U.N. arms embargo and achieve a military buildup …

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