The Strategic Imperative of ISIS: Deal With It Now or Die by It Later
During the 2012 presidential campaign President Obama repeatedly boasted, “Osama bin Laden is dead and Al-Qaeda is on the run.” He is right on both counts: bin Laden is gone and Al-Qaeda runs stronger than ever. The latest Al-Qaeda iteration, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), conceived by Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, gained strength and experience fighting in the Syrian civil war, a conflict President Obama avoided by dubbing possible intervention as “doing stupid stuff.”
Today, ISIS fields an estimated 50,000 jihadist fighters (equivalent to more than two U.S. Army divisions) who are fanatically committed to an aggressive extremist agenda. In June 2014, six months after President Obama dubbed ISIS a “junior varsity” among terrorist groups, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate from western Syria to the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and south to the outskirts of Baghdad. Now, al-Baghdadi ranks with Al-Qaeda leader Aman al-Zawahiri at the top of the U.S. most wanted terrorist list.
ISIS poses an immediate threat to the Levant, an area including Crete, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq. The terrorist group’s ultimate strategic objective extends its radical jihad globally and threatens to raise the “green flag of Islam over the White House.” If ISIS were a physiological condition it would be a stage three cancer moving to stage four.
The immediate threat is to Kurdish refugees and Yazidis – an ethnic minority practicing a syncretic religion combining Sunni and Sufi Islam with elements of Christianity and other religions – who are trapped together on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, and to the Kurdish capital at Irbil. The possibility of genocide is real. While the Kurds and Yazidis are hearty fighters, ISIS bristles with U.S. weapons, including tanks and artillery, which were recently captured from the Iraqi military. Additionally, ISIS honed its combat experience while fighting American forces in Iraq and fighting in the on-going Syrian civil war.
The situation in Iraq is ripe for a strategically articulated, massive aerial campaign for which timing is essential. ISIS forces are vulnerable in the open desert but if they “go to ground” in captured towns and villages, they will use hostages as cover while daring the opposition to attack.
Using precision-guided munitions to take out mortars, artillery, trucks, and tanks constitutes war at the lowest tactical level. A strategic air campaign could significantly diminish the operational capabilities of ISIS. This can be done with B-1 and B-52 bombers, planes with long loiter times capable of employing a range of weapons from precision guided munitions to massive loads of 500-pound bombs.
Crippling ISIS can be done with minimal U.S. boots on the ground. A surgical insertion of two battalions of U.S. Army Rangers and a battalion of Army engineers to recapture the Chambarakat Dam at Mosul would preclude any threat to turning off the power for most of Iraq or, worse, blowing up the dam and flooding the region as far south as Baghdad. Since the vulnerable dam is built on shifting sands, if maintenance experts are not involved soon its collapse could render a human tragedy of catastrophic proportions.
Other countries must wake up to the threat of ISIS and assist in defeating them. American diplomats must urge the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan to send ground forces to support the Iraqi army. ISIS clearly has those regimes in its crosshairs. With U.S. air support, Arab armies can fight this threat successfully.
If the United States fails to lead a successful campaign, ISIS will entrench its terrorist caliphate in the heart of the Levant. From there ISIS will expand its jihad throughout the Arabian Gulf states and into Jordan and Lebanon. Eventually ISIS could isolate and attack Israel and, in doing so, risk an Israeli nuclear response. In this case, the epitome of “stupid stuff” is for the administration to continue treating ISIS like a “JV threat.” Like a metastasizing cancer, the quicker ISIS is dealt with, the better the long-term prognosis.
Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.