The best weapon to fight the Islamic State is already in Iraq

August 28, 2014

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard at the Bakirta frontline near the town of Makhmur

In 21st century Iraq, the enemy is not a state, though it calls itself one. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a group of Islamist insurgents whose presence stretches across the border between Syria and Iraq.

The only way to defeat the Islamic State is through military force, but Americans will not be doing the fighting on the ground. General John Allen, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, has observed that, “the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Free Syrian resistance elements of the region are the ‘boots on the ground’ necessary to the success of this campaign.”

Make no mistake: dismantling a nascent Islamic State is a serious undertaking, involving thousands of U.S. personnel and a robust interagency effort. The insurgents are ruthless, resourceful and are adept at weaving themselves into the fabric of the region, making them virtually undetectable until they strike. If President Barack Obama’s strategy is to “contain” ISIL, not destroy it, as the New York Times reported on Aug.  22, he will fail.

Masked and without a uniform, ISIL is impossible to fight using the doctrines of the past. Airstrikes and raids will fail to do damage without actionable intelligence. To keep pace with and then overtake ISIL, the U.S. Central Command should first select a widely respected four-star officer to lead a new joint task force. It would operate inside Syria and Iraq, and along the Turkish and Iranian borders. No Burger Kings or Best Buys on this base.

And every part of the U.S. intelligence and military apparatus has to work together; just they did with the interagency Joint Task Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.

It still takes a network,” as Travis Wheeler, a graduate student at Tuft University’s The Fletcher School, writes. This will involve killing and capturing militants, as well as engaging in denial, deception, sabotage and subversion.

To protect the U.S. consulate in Arbil, peshmerga (as the Kurdish fighters are known) should be provided with Javelin antitank missiles, armored personnel carriers and night-vision equipment. Arbil is home to one of the longest runways in the world, but the Kurds do not have a viable air force and are dependent on Baghdad for air support. This should be rectified immediately by deploying the 6th Special Operations Squadron, which specializes in building air forces from the ground up. The Kurds’ nascent air force should be given Super Tucano propeller planes and its pilots instructed on how to fly them in combat. Other rotary and fixed-wing aircraft could operate out of Arbil’s airport, allowing French, U.S. and British aircraft to be closer to the fight. Navy Seabees construction battalions and U.S. Air Force Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers can construct new hangars in a matter of days.

A drone-centric strategy hasn’t worked well in Yemen and Pakistan to permanently end the threat of terrorism, and will not work at all in Syria and Iraq. Without granular intelligence, drones have no way of distinguishing between combatants and noncombatants. Obama has authorized as many as 60 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights of manned and unmanned aircraft per day, but that is insufficient. ISIL militants act like terrorists but think like street criminals and as such are not susceptible to intercept by the National Security Agency.

“They are everywhere, yet they are nowhere,” the intellectual godfather of counterinsurgency, David Galula, famously observed. It remains true. Radical Islamists do not talk on phones about operations, and when they do it is meant to deceive.

It is also hard to fight the Islamic State in Syria through the air, both because of surface-to-air emplacements in Syria and surface-to-air missiles the Islamist group is rumored to possess. This is a fundamental issue for the counterinsurgency, and a fingertip feel of the environment will be essential to capture and kill the right people.

To hurt ISIL, it must first be understood. Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI personnel, working alongside Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA should capture and interrogate as many militants as possible, in a lawful manner. This would allow interrogators to discern the true size, nature and intentions of the militants, as well as disrupt future operations and even court double agents.

Meantime, functioning as an intelligence “trawler,” select peshmerga should be trained to use clandestine tagging and tracking of equipment. Using this technology, U.S. and coalition aircraft would be able to identify vehicles and individuals from the air and on the ground using special chemicals. ISIL’ expertise in urban fortification and military deception ensures civilian casualties unless this capability is built.

Unfortunately, Iran cannot be considered a credible partner in Iraq. The advance of ISIL threatens Iran’s position throughout the region, in particular its influence on Iraq and Syria. The United States should capitalize on Iranian fears and arm Kurdish groups across the region, There are as many as 5 million Kurds in Iran. They don’t fear Iran’s paramilitaries and have proven to be fierce and unrelenting fighters. Elements of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iran have declared “the whole world is afraid of Iran, and Iran is afraid of our peshmerga.”

This would afford Western intelligence agencies a talent pool from which to recruit.

A well-armed peshmerga and renewed investment in proven intelligence techniques will be critical to combating extremists inside and outside of Iraq. America can stand tall with the Kurds, cripple Iran’s paramilitary capability, and destroy the Islamic State, but must act decisively and creatively—today.


PHOTO: A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard at the Bakirta frontline near the town of Makhmur, south of Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan August 27, 2014. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal 


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Amen! Finally a sensible article on the subject!

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

According to reports the Pentagon is presently in the process of formulating a strategy for dealing with ISIL.

As you stated in your opinion piece, “General John Allen, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, has observed that, “the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Free Syrian resistance elements of the region are the ‘boots on the ground’ necessary to the success of this campaign.””

With this statement coming from a career military man I would expect that the Pentagon and the U.S. president are considering the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Free Syrian resistance elements as a major part of their strategy for dealing with this ISIL group of fanatical Islamist insurgents.

Posted by GetToTheTruth | Report as abusive

With all due respect to the general and his observations –


The “Free Syrian” resistance doesn’t exist other than as a fragmented, under-supported, under-led, distrusted and essentially non-viable force in Syria. It is infiltrated by the “Super Islamists” at all levels and offers nothing in terms of partnership.

The Sunnis? In late 2003, then AMB Bremmer advocated reinforcing the north (Kurdistan by any other name) and leaving the rest of Iraq to bicker with itself as any form of shared government was impossible. The Sunnis? Who are the Sunnis? The ultra nationalistic / super Islamists or the average Sunni civilian who simply wants to be left alone?

The Kurds? The Pesh Merga is a 10,000 man and woman militia. It exists to protect Kurdistan, not to become the Montanyard proxy army for the United States … refer to Vietnam and how our “support” and “assistance” worked out so well for the “Yards” after we left that war behind.

“Smoke and Mirrors” is all this latest discussion is. Iraq is no more. The blood letting has only just begun.

Posted by KarmaCommando | Report as abusive

Working solely with indigenous forces in Afghanistan didn’t work. They let Osama walk away and most of the nuts just get released right back out again.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

So because there’s no guarantees and because nothing looks easy, we give the Islamic State the keys to the planet? Please.

The traditional “way forward” is to start by doing what you can, where you are, with what you have. And make absolutely sure to sideline any would-be Iraqi Karzai before they become a long term problem.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Who the hell is this Travis Wheeler? What the hell is he a student in??? Where the hell is this Tuft University??? and WHY the hell is Reuters taking Wheeler’s opinion??? Reuters : Don’t u have any better person, a better authority on the subject, to take an Opinion from??? or, is this coming out of one of the Editor’s napping moments?

Posted by milkel | Report as abusive

Gotta love the clown-in-charge who doesnt have a strategy – NSA listening to mom & pop America but didnt hear any of the ISIS chatter – shame on America for allowing this muslim to dictate our demise

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

It all sounds too good to be true; having mercurial boots on the ground. most whom have at one stage or another opposed all things ‘freedom’ and now are rallying against a common foe, supported from the air and at forward staging points by a previously common foe.

advancing the technology of War without incurring losses, and completely disseminating a merry band of foreign mercenaries. Sun Tzu, never really saw this element of War manifesting; where Man and Machine could fight from the Heavens, incurring minimal collateral loss of combatants on the ground, whilst simultaneously bleeding her ephemeral allies of all combative strategies, and organisational structures. I hope you are mapping all of the DNA, physical, and photographic identities, and lineages, of all of your ‘new’ friends, for future database intelligence crosschecking, when these formidable allies once more cross over to become our dastardly foes.

SunTzu eat your heart out, because Digital Mapping has finally delivered Chapter 14 of the ‘Art of War’. I am sure if our tacticians looked hard enough at the preceding 13 Chapters of this timeless piece they could find a hexagram that would solve the so far unsolvable riddle that is the Middle East Perpetual Theatre of Engagement. Look Hard!

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive

It’s obvious that there is no political will in this country for any sort of effort in Iraq or Syria that involves American boots on the ground. We’d just be playing Islamic extremist whack-a -mole and politicly we’d never be able to sustain an effort that would whack all the moles.

Posted by aynew1 | Report as abusive

“the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Free Syrian resistance elements of the region are the ‘boots on the ground’ necessary to the success of this campaign.”

Is this right – makes little sense… ISIS is Sunni so I don’t see how anyone can trust Sunnis to support an attack on ISIS – Sunnis are the ones who allowed ISIS to take over their areas because they had been suppressed by Shiite Maliki. “Free Syrian resistance elements” may be Shiite (not sure – hard to keep track of all those groups), but the Kurds are solid (even before ISIS came around).

We need to stay OUT of Muslim affairs. I’m all for helping the Kurds, but doing otherwise ends up supporting either Sunni or Shiite which is worse than interfering in a bad marriage (eventually both parties will hate you).

Posted by chris87654 | Report as abusive

“……arm Kurdish groups across the region….”

Yeah, Turkey, an ally and NATO member, would love that, given the problems they’ve had with PKK.

Posted by roncee | Report as abusive

Wouldn’t have been better that the US did not hire, train, arm and fund these people? The real solution is for the US to stop giving tax payers money to ISIS and other islamic fundamentalists to do their dirty work, and who then turn on them. ISIS was set up by the US to fight Libya, then Syria, but when Assad started to win, they went south to Iraq for softer targets. These are facts. The only question is, are these people still pushing the US agenda, or their own. That is the question.

Posted by RocketSurgeon | Report as abusive

ok, you destroy isil and weaken iran… and then what?

Posted by bezz | Report as abusive

The best thing for the US to do is to walk away from the entire region and that includes the Saudis, Kuwaitis and other arab “allies” who have been funding ISIS through back channels. Ask yourself this: Why would ISIS release a journalist just because Qatar got in on the discussion? What influence could Qatar possibly have? Duh. The violence in this area goes back thousands of years. The US can’t possibly comprehend how thousands of years of killings and butcherings by everyone has weaved its way into the psyche and traditions of these peoples. Yes, beheadings of children are shocking to us; but not to them; for them, that’s business as usual. We’re not going to change them or their ways. They are uncivil to each other. None of them deserve our support. The best thing we can do for them is to embargo the entire region. They hate the west, fine; then lets embargo the entire western way of doing things. No cell phones, no cars, no advanced textiles, no weapons, no medicines. If the Chinese or Russians want to do business with them, fine, good luck to their new friends. We need to walk away from these people FOREVER.

Posted by archercrosley | Report as abusive

Classic example of the Pentagon’s myopic stupidity.

Yes Robert, let’s arm another militant faction in the Middle East. I’m sure they will follow our commands, dismantle the insurgency, and then politely hand the weapons back to us.

We need equal rights for the PKK, not a heavily-militarized PKK. I’d give them less than a decade before they turned around and bit the hand that feeds them.

Remember how Al Qaeda formed?

Posted by Ubruni | Report as abusive

If any of the ISIS members are captured, I’m sure the Kurds have a way of making sure they are more that willing to tell what they know, in a legal way of course.

Posted by Scot168 | Report as abusive

Is this a joke?

Posted by Jmichael83 | Report as abusive

Obama-Hillary foreign policy has been a disaster.

Posted by dencal26 | Report as abusive

“The Kurds’ nascent air force should be given Super Tucano propeller planes and its pilots instructed on how to fly them in combat.”

To the Author of the Article: The Brazilian Super Tucano built by Embraer may be a great Combat Air Support Aircraft. However, don’t you think its’ U.S. Competitors; (American Tractor, Cessna, etc) would vigorously lobby Congress to get any purchase of Super Tucanos by the U.S. shut down quick? Sounds like naivete on your part.

Posted by Bodhisattvya | Report as abusive

Hello, Mikel,to find out who Travis Wheeler and the Fletcher School of Tufts University are just click on,”It still takes a network” in blue. Who are you?

Posted by C-Class | Report as abusive

YA GREAT! lET’S GET THE NEXT STUPID WAR GOING.Arm the Kurds. The Turks will Be delighted. After invading a stable if dictatorial sovereign state, kicking out the relatively harmless Bath party. and destabilizing the whole nation under a mistaken pretext of stopping imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” the U.S. left Iraq in chaos and in the hands of a puppet government. Now that the place is assured of mayhem and destruction for the forseable future let’s throw more gasoline on the fire. Get the hell out and leave bad enough alone. P.S. Any western civilian that goes to these places is too foolhardy for words. God rest their soles.

Posted by houndog1 | Report as abusive

Too funny. An American arm chair war general dictating how to fight in a country so little understood. Where are the voices from Iraq? These are the voices who can best lay out how to fight this ISIS entity?

From my armchair view – give ownership and you will see ISIS eradicated.

There are 3 main entities in Iraq. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Give them each a country to call their own and let them clean up the garbage. Trust me – they will do this fast. In the mix will be collateral damage – similar to India and Yugoslavia splitting up into ethnic groups and now they are very stable.

Send in more money and troops to collar groups that hate each other and you will just create more ISIS.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

All this sounds fine, but with a bumbling president who’s strategy is not to make mistakes, none of this will happen. While TV pundits are often wrong, I give credit to those conservative and other TV hosts who clearly stated two and three years ago that if we did not support the moderate rebels in Syria, the radicals would take over. They have, and their cause has attracted many young Islamic fighters from all over the world. We allowed this. If the author were in charge a few years ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Unfortunately, in the US the electorate is more and more filled with kids who care more about their I-phones than their country and get all their news from Jon Stewart. As long as they keep electing bone-heads like President Obama, don’t expect any change. It will only get worse. He is more worried about calling the Fort Hood massacre “workplace violence” rather than Islamic terrorism than he is about the Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, etc. who are being raped, killed and tortured in Iraq and Syria. The only reason he did anything was because the there was political pressure to act. He will only react to the polls and will only do the minimum necessary.

Posted by Bones888 | Report as abusive

[…] obscured the administration’s denials of NSA spying in a quote at Buzzfeed, said we should arm the Kurds and put boots on the ground in Iraq, thinks the man who thought we could bomb Libya into […]

Posted by Robert Caruso and the grey tribe: The tweets his future employers, editors, and clients should know about | The Mitrailleuse | Report as abusive