To: President Donald Trump
From: W.S. Lind
Re: Your request for a plan to defeat ISIS
You have requested a plan to defeat ISIS. Here is one. It begins with the highest level of war and works downward, because a higher level trumps a lower level. Too often in the past, the U.S. has ignored the higher levels, focusing simply on killing enemy fighters and taking ground. It then loses, but cannot understand why it lost. The approach recommended here does not repeat that mistake. It begins at the top, with grand strategy.
- Our grand strategy should be to create an alliance of all states against violent non-state forces. Such an alliance must begin by bringing together the three real Great Powers, Russia, China, and the United States. From that perspective, ISIS is an opportunity more than a problem. China is not likely to participate, but a campaign to destroy ISIS can draw in Russia, moving us toward our grand strategic goal. More, it must draw in Russia, as an equal, if the campaign is to succeed. As we will see below, there are areas where we need Russia to take the lead, with the U.S. in a supporting role. Thanks to your good relationship with President Putin, this should be possible.
- At the strategic level, we cannot destroy ISIS through military action alone. Military pressure alone is likely to bring the various elements within ISIS together, where our strategy should be to pull them apart. That is possible, because ISIS is an unstable and unnatural coalition between Islamists and high-level Baathists from Saddam Hussein’s government and security services. The religious crazies provide the front men and the cannon fodder, but ISIS is run by the Baath. Only the Baath can make things work; break the coalition and the Islamists become wraiths.
To reach the Baathists inside ISIS, who are rational men with whom deals can be made, we need Russia to take the lead. Virtually all leading Baathists trained in the Soviet Union and Russia retains ties to many of them. The deal we should offer is to recognize a new country, Sunnistan, made up of Sunni-populated areas in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and to accept that it will be led by the Baath. In return, the Baathists will cut the throats of the Islamists, something they will do with considerable enthusiasm. Their alliance is one of necessity only.
- At the level of operational art (a long-time Russian specialty), we need to encircle Raqqa, ISIS’s capital. The purpose is to put the Baathists on notice that time is not on their side and to show we are ready to move quickly to support them if they accept the deal we offer. Here again we need Russia to take the lead. The U.S. military sees campaigns in terms of linear wars of attrition, not encirclement. Even if that were to succeed against ISIS, it would be indecisive, because it would just push them out the back door. The campaign should be commanded by a Russian general with a combined Russian-American staff where Russians serve in the top intelligence (J-2) and operations (J-3) billets.
On the ground, the U.S. should offer a small, highly mobile force suited to battles of encirclement. This is not something the U.S. military is prepared to provide, but it can be cobbled together from units we have. All combat vehicles should be wheeled, not tracked, LAVs (Marine Corps) and Strykers (Army). The force should not be larger than 10,000 men, most of them fighters, with sea-based logistics. The choice of commanders from battalion level on up will be of critical importance. We have very few officers who can do maneuver warfare. If the key billets go to typical process-followers, we will fail. It must also be made clear to all American commanders that they will take orders from Russians.
- Tactics should not offer much of a challenge. Our force will not attempt to take urban areas aginst serious opposition. Once Raqqa is encircled, local militias can both man the lines of encirclement and, if it should be necessary, take defended urban areas. They will also deal with captured Islamists once our force, its mission done, leaves. The goal should be to get in and out in ninety days.
There you have it, Mr. President. No plan guarantees success, but this plan at least offers a chance of a decisive result, which more bombing and more advisors do not. Perhaps it is time to stop doing more of the same thing and expecting a different result.