In the annals of warfare there have been few conflicts as asymmetric as the United States against the Islamic State, which pits a global superpower at the head of an international coalition against a brutally ambitious terrorist group.
That dynamic of the strong against the seemingly weak was underscored in recent days, when President Obama used the pomp and ceremony of the annual United Nations General Assembly to rally the international community against an ideologically driven movement of extremists.
After chairing a rare U.N. Security Council meeting on the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIL or ISIS), Obama was uncharacteristically blunt in describing the nature of the challenge ahead. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” Obama said in his address. “So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
As if to reinforce Obama’s point, the Islamic State engaged in a display of coalition warfare of its own: Islamist militants in Algeria with sworn allegiance to IS released a video depicting the beheading of a French hostage in apparent retaliation for France’s participation in the U.S.-led air campaign.
While a war pitting a global superpower against a terrorist group may seem lopsided, recent U.S. history and the “global war on terrorism” aimed at al-Qaida offer cautionary lessons. The first is to not lash out before understanding the true nature of your enemy.
When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi launched the offensive last summer that rolled over four Iraqi army divisions and bought his army of black-clad extremists to the outskirts of Baghdad, for instance, he took the U.S. intelligence community by surprise. Terrorist groups, even ones incubated in sectarian civil war and boasting the pedigree of the Islamic State (formerly al-Qaida in Iraq), are not supposed to prevail in frontal assaults on major military formations, nor capture large swaths of territory in blitzkrieg-type offenses.
Yet since that summer offensive IS fighters have continued in their attempts to expand the borders of their fundamentalist caliphate in Sunni-majority
territory on both sides of the Syrian-Iraq border. They’ve lost some ground in northern Iraq to Kurdish peshmerga forces, but just in the past week have achieved tactical victories in western Iraq and northern Syria.
This taking and holding of territory is not textbook asymmetrical strategy for a weak combatant. To pursue it, al-Baghdadi relies on a deep connection and understanding of the disaffected Sunni militant groups and tribes who rose up to embrace his black banner. When IS fighters swept out of Syria into Iraq, it may have looked like a standard if daring military maneuver, but it was more akin to an organic uprising by viral flash mobs of locals, with Twitter the method of choice for tactical communications.
“Just as Al Qaeda in Iraq dominated the headlines during the Iraq war, but represented only roughly 20 percent of the Sunni insurgency we fought, so it is with ISIL today,” said Army Colonel Joel Rayburn, author of the new book "Iraq After America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance," speaking this week at the New America Foundation.
Sunni militant and extremist groups initially flocked to the Islamic State out of hatred for the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government, and because of the group's rich coffers and aura of victory. Also, al-Baghdadi had met many militant Sunni leaders in prison after being captured by U.S. forces in Iraq, and he eventually freed them in daring IS jail breaks that earned him loyalty.
The key to al-Baghdadi’s asymmetric strategy now is to keep the Sunni tribes united — by offering them spoils, but also by ruthless intimidation, said Rayburn, who notes that IS fighters slaughtered an estimated 700 members of a single breakaway tribe. “And even if every purely ISIL fighter dropped dead today, I predict the war [between Sunnis and Shiites] would still go on inside Iraq and Syria for a long time.”
With its opening fusillade of cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs aimed at IS targets inside Syria this week, the Obama administration adopted its own asymmetric strategy for degrading and defeating the Islamic State, one that will rely overwhelmingly on modern airpower with no significant U.S. “boots on the ground.”Despite its limitations, that strategy seeks to deny the Islamic State the ability to inflict casualties on U.S. forces and erode support for U.S. military action at home.
“President Obama has rightly decided to rely on airpower because the last thing you want to do is let ISIL goad us into deploying large numbers of ground forces so they can inflict casualties on us,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who directed air operations for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 and was the principal air planner for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The Islamic extremists have come to fear U.S. airpower after many years of hiding from lethal Predator and Reaper unmanned drones, which circle overhead and just out of reach, yet they have devised countermeasures. They use civilians as human shields and reap a propaganda advantage in the event of missile strikes.
“The enemy will spread disinformation in hopes the media will achieve what they cannot, which is to put restrictions and limits on our use of airpower,” said Deptula. “ISIL knows it has asymmetric advantages on the ground, but we have our own asymmetric advantage: we can project power from the air, without projecting vulnerability.”
The targeting of the Islamic State’s operational centers in Syria with the first round of strikes this week — including command-and-control facilities, weapons depots, and personnel barracks – was designed to halt the advance of IS forces in both Iraq and Syria, and to send its leaders into hiding where they will be less able to communicate effectively. As the U.S. military learned in the air war over Kosovo in 1999, the key going forward will be persistent airstrikes that continually degrade IS capabilities, target its allies, and get inside the minds of Sunni tribal leaders who may want to rethink their close alliance with the group.
“The key is using our advantage in airpower to apply unrelenting pressure that impacts ISIL and its allies psychologically as well as physically, because in 21st century military operations the most important battle space is your adversary’s frame of mind,” said Deptula. “Now we need to continue conducting airstrikes around the clock. For maximum impact modern airpower should be applied like a persistent thunderstorm, not an occasional rain squall.”
The weakness in the U.S. military’s asymmetric strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State from the air is the lack of reliable proxy forces on the ground. One goal airpower cannot achieve is to recapture and hold territory that the group has seized in Syria and especially Iraq, where it remains in charge of major cities such as Fallujah, Tikrit and Mosul. The Pentagon has moved to fill that void with “train, equip and assist” missions for Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish peshmerga, and more moderate Syrian rebels, who will be trained at a base in Saudi Arabia. Those remain very time-consuming missions, however, with long-term horizons.
At the same time, al-Baghdadi’s asymmetrical strategy for battling a much stronger foe also has significant weaknesses, beginning with the breathtaking ambition that surprised U.S. intelligence analysts in the first place. Al-Qaida leaders and the Taliban learned in 2001 how difficult it is to hold territory and repulse even a weak opponent on the ground in the face of withering and precise U.S. airpower. Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants survived as long as they did by hiding in the shadows or finding sanctuary in Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas. With their initial airstrikes U.S. war planners have made it clear that the Islamic State will not enjoy sanctuary in Syria, and that its forces holding positions in Iraq are dangerously exposed.
“The main effort to come will be helping Iraqi Security Forces retake lost territory and recapture cities such as Mosul, and that will be a very tough and high risk mission,” said retired Army Lt. General David Barno, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Having said that, unlike an underground and hard-to-target terrorist organization like al-Qaida, ISIL is now above ground both literally and figuratively, and as it takes new territory, tries to hold onto cities and operates over vast distances, its forces and lines of [supply] are very vulnerable to attack from the air.”
Perhaps the most glaring weakness in al-Baghdadi’s strategy is its reliance on extreme brutality to enforce loyalty and discipline and to terrify opponents. Such extreme tactics inspired Sunni tribes to eventually turn on the group during 2006 and 2007 in the “Anbar Awakening.” The fact that Saudi Arabia and four other Sunni-led states in the Persian Gulf region have already joined the U.S.-led coalition in launching airstrikes suggests that Sunni forbearance of the Islamic State militants has already worn thin. And each new video depicting the sadistic beheading of a Western hostage only hardens Western resolve.
As Obama declared at the United Nations, such men understand only one language. And the message the United States and its allies are delivering from the air needs no translation.