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