The View From Olympus: A Memo for President Trump

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.

11 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: A Memo for President Trump”

  1. WSL: Military pressure alone is likely to bring the various elements within ISIS together, where our strategy should be to pull them apart.

    Dear Mr Lind,

    If I had to guess, you’d think you’d want the general public and the people that are supposed to serve them should try to understand this line of all of the lines in your post. I was in what was Yugoslavia and parts of Eastern Europe in the late 80s early 90s (in Berlin on 9 Nov / 9 11. 911 used to be a beautiful car and a great day for freedom for me, then it go co-opted in a way that pains me more than some) and the impending disaster was so palpable. But, as an American, I was granted a non-ironic demi-godlike (ok, maybe rock star? it was weird!) status. They wanted to talk about President George H.W. Bush, America, freedom, dollars! What was it all like? Dallas! Now the Dallas part, I had issue with, but what was evident, there and in much of my travels through Eastern Europe was an adoration of /fundamental/ American values. Serbians, Bulgarians (so funny), Hungarians, Romanians, and Yugoslavians who would disintegrate into their sundry identities, even Albanians on the down low, they all loved the *idea* of America and the Americans they encountered. Russians on vacation! The locals hated the Russians, but the Russians couldn’t get enough about what was going on in America and in a how do I get there kind of way. I know America is amorphous in some sense, but there were transcendent ideas bigger than Dallas that resonated, and these people were going back to Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Jefferson, etc. George Washington? He never existed… he was a myth we made up, but one they liked very much. Transcendent! It was surreal. I only blather on to support what I believe to be your position is that ideas, and even more importantly, *values* win wars and win and secure allies. If we don’t hold true to our values, then our words carry no weight. I don’t remember Sun Tzu’s quote off hand, but the art of war is winning before a battle can be fought. I can hardly bear to think of all of those amazing, lovely people who are now dead through our psuedorealpolitik then and now.

    Dear Mr. Lind, thank you for all you have done for more than yourself. God bless you.

  2. Mostly seems reasonable, but how do the Baathists avoid being delegitimised by any deal they make with Russia/USA? Surely the Islamists have the manpower and the moral authority within Daesh/IS to prevail in such a case. Which means the Baathists won’t take the bait. And the Syrian & Iraqi governments would be deligitimised by ceding territory to Sunnistan.

    At the very least, any deal with the Baath elements needs to be secret, the territory cannot formally be ceded, and to have any hope of success there have to be non-Islamist Baath & tribal cadres (within or outside IS), capable of taking and holding territory, who can then be recognised as the devolved governments of autonomous Sunni regions.

    Also, IS thrives through support from Saudi & Qatar principally; that needs to be cut off by US pressure. The US also needs to cut CIA the funding of ‘moderate rebels’ which supports Al-Qaeda in Syria. If a Baath Sunni Arab quasi-state is to be established, the secular Syrian state needs to be secured, as does the Shia Iraqi rump state. Everyone needs to get something.

  3. Dear Mr. Lind, a few points to consider:

    1) Successful non-state actors have nation-state sponsors. ISIS is no exception, drawing funds from the West, the Gulf States, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. A Grand alliance of states against non-states will be impossible unless this is corrected first. Non-state actors must be cut off from their state sponsors before we can hope to defeat them.
    I agree that we should collaborate with the Russians, and improve relations. China should also be given free reign to defeat the Islamists in their southwest.

    2) Military action alone is the imperative first step. Unless we can defeat ISIS militarily first, then it will continue to fight. Only when this is accomplished can we move on to political means. As for drawing the various elements together, this is better than letting them fragment. Guerrillas rely on secrecy/stealth, dispersion, and mobility to be effective, since they lack the firepower of conventional forces. By forcing them together, they will be forced to fight conventional battles for which they are ill-suited. Retreating weakens their credibility among their supporters. Fragmentation will only produce hundreds of little groups that will need to be hunted to extinction separately. It is easier to fight men in the open than to fight wraiths.

    The Islamists whom you refer to as cannon fodder are the men with guns. It is true that the Baathists have found employment with ISIS after their last boss was killed, but the fanatics will kill them if they accept a deal like you propose. The Baathists may be the brains keeping ISIS effective, but they are severely outnumbered, and ISIS fighters breed like rabbits on Viagra. ISIS will only accept a deal if it furthers their goals.
    The Baathists are socialists, whereas ISIS is Islamic. Socialism can provide strongmen capable of holding back Islam, but they will not live forever. A long-term goal should be to bolster socialism to supplant and hollow out Islam.

    The map of the Middle East should be redrawn along ethnic/cultural lines. By homogenizing nation-states, we will accomplish more in thwarting non-state actors. This includes the Kurds, who have been a reliable ally for years.

    3) Just because the French Army surrendered when their maps told them they were encircled doesn’t mean ISIS will. The Russians have plenty of experience walking out of the 30-km gaps left by armored encirclement.
    Also, you forget that Fallujah was surrounded before it was assaulted. You (very inaccurately) predicted that would result in disaster. Instead, American forces won a conventional battle you predicted would not happen.

    ISIS cannot win in the long run unless it can fight as a conventional power. No guerrilla army can. Mao did it. The VC did it. Castro did it. All revolutionaries/non-state actors seek to become the state. They must fight conventionally in order to keep their caliphate. They already execute militants who retreat, and will defend their Capitol even more.

    Maneuver warfare is good in the open, but poor in cities/close terrain. You exaggerate the flaws of America’s systems, but I have not heard you mention any of our (numerous) victories. I also wonder why you don’t mention the siege battles that Maneuver warfare lost: Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Berlin, The Iron Triangle (in Korea), Khe Sanh, Saigon, or the Israelis’ mixed performances in retaking Jerusalem in 1967 against poorly trained Arabs.
    Sea-based logistics? Raqqa is hundreds of miles from the coast. That last leg will also be targeted for attacks. Smaller is not better when it comes to resupply, particularly in a prolonged offensive (see below).

    4) Your idea that we will win without urban battles or within 3 months is doubly doubtful. Wars are won in urban battles. From Hannibal to Mao, this has always been the case. As for the 90-day deadline, ask Rommel how that worked out. The minute the British checked his advance, he lost the momentum and was forced to withdraw. If we are to rely on militias, we should assist them with our superior firepower, which is decisive in slow-moving urban combat.

    Maneuver warfare promises general (i.e., decisive, quick) victories, but history is filled with armies that tried to win a general victory and the conflict dragged on. The other team gets a vote, too. America’s military should decentralize decision-making, but attrition warfare is still viable as long as mankind fights for cities. Killing the enemy is always an effective way to win wars, and artillery is still the king of battle. Ask the Ukrainians about that (hint: 85% of casualties in their war).

  4. The entire map of the Middle East needs to be redrawn. The only way to stabilize the region is to form homogeneous ethnic/cultural nation-states, led by strongmen like Assad and the Baath.

  5. Long time reader here. I have a podcast I’m a part of now and I was wondering if anyone from would like to join us for an interview sometime to talk about 4GW theory and the other things you do on here.

  6. I believe Russian SOP for occupying urban areas is to indiscriminately carpet bomb everything inside the perimeter into the ground, using artillery as well as bombers. Grozny and (more recently) Aleppo is evidence of that tactic. Massive civilian causalities are just seen as the price of doing business.

  7. ISIS uses civilians as shields, and sets up lots of booby traps to thwart conventional attacks. That’s why the Syrian Army chose not to assault Hana in 1982, and just wiped the city off of the map. The Arabs treat each other like garbage, so we’re not breaking any of their rules of warfare.

  8. This is a good assessment, but it misses the elephant in the room: ISIS’ center of gravity is no longer in the Middle East. It now lies in Europe – remarkably in tune with al-Qaeda’s long-term plan

    I do agree that Sunnistan is the best hope to address the situation in the Middle East, because it shifts the strategy of the regional Sunni powers away from efforts that support ISIS. This strikes me as even more important than involving Russia, though the latter certainly would not hurt and I support every recommendation made herein along those lines.

    If you can get Sunnistan, you can decouple Europe’s looming 4GW problem from a land-base in Iraq or Syria. That does not solve the problem of Turkey or Libya, or the home-grown self-inflicted wounds of Islamist no-go zones in Europe, but the progressive severing of support networks that characterizes effective 4GW must start somewhere.

  9. Cutting a deal with the Ba’athists to turn on the Islamists would have certainly been the right way to do this at the beginning of the conflicts, once ISIS’ initial string of victories ground to a halt.

    I question, however, whether the Ba’athist elements within ISIS are still strong enough to pull off a coup like this. Balances of power rarely remain static and we see very little of what goes on inside of the ISIS hierarchy.

    Quite likely the fanatics have been blaming the lack of purity and faith among the non-fanatics for the defeats they’ve been suffering.

    Perhaps there is a chance though, so it is worth a shot. I can’t see the Iranians, Kurds, Iraqi Shia, or Assadists being happy about the “Sunnistan” idea though. I’m also not sure whether there’d still be any affection for the Russians among the Ba’athists (Russia didn’t lift a finger to help them in either of their wars with the US).

    The only other solution I see being viable is the Hama solution, though, so it is worth attempting these diplomatic options first, even if they’re a long shot.

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