Best Defense

Fighting ISIS: We should admit that what we are doing is a containment strategy

Our current strategy against ISIS is undoable because the president’s articulated end state of destroying the Islamic State is simply impossible to achieve; you cannot destroy a movement.


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on October 30, 2014.

By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Our current strategy against ISIS is undoable because the president’s articulated end state of destroying the Islamic State is simply impossible to achieve; you cannot destroy a movement.

What we could do is destroy the military power of the Islamic State; that is what is threatening our allies in the Gulf region, and eventually could provide a sanctuary that could pose an existential threat to the American homeland. However, President Obama’s current strategy will not accomplish even that. American air power alone may be able to help our friends in the region contain the army of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but it will not root them out of the cities and towns that they currently occupy in Syria and Iraq. The fact that it has crafted an alliance with the Khorasan Group, which is actively trying to attack the American homeland, makes the Islamic State even more problematical.

The liberation of the populations subject to Islamic State rule will require a combined arms assault of integrated ground and air power to conduct the kind of offensive urban combat needed to get the job done. The Kurds, Iraqis and moderate Syrian rebels lack the skill, training, leadership, and will to conduct these kind of operations in the foreseeable future.

After the debacle of the 1993 Battle of the Black Sea Market (Black Hawk Down) in Mogadishu, Somalia, where we saw the asymmetric tactic of armed fighters deliberately using the civilian population as shields, the American military realized it was unprepared for such combat. Beginning in 1995, the United States Marine Corps undertook a deliberate effort to overcome this challenge. It was a major undertaking.

In a multi-year effort called “Urban Warrior,” the Marine Corps sought to improve its urban warfare capabilities in terms of tactics and technology, and spent millions in the process. Along the way, we learned some critical things. If you rubble a city in order to take it, you destroy the urban population that is presumably the objective you are fighting for. This caused us to look at more discreet ways of clearing a room where the enemy is located rather than destroying the entire building. We gave our marines improved sights for their rifles and increased our sniper and counter-sniper capabilities. We also built an entire city out of shipping containers in Yuma, Arizona where we could test and practice the discreet targeting of rooms in buildings with low-grade precision munitions delivered by aircraft.

We also looked at ways to locate booby traps and improvised explosive devices using robots and other electronic devices as well as using small, hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles to see what was going around the corner of the urban canyons that we expected to fight in. All this paid off in the Battle for Fallujah in 2004, but it was still a bloody fight.

The real answer was training and leadership; technology helped, but without superbly trained troops answering to expert small-unit leaders, offensive urban fighting can be a nightmare. The Israelis are probably the best Middle Eastern army, and they suffered appalling casualties in the recent urban fighting in Gaza’s outskirts; they never actually tried to occupy the city itself. It is difficult to believe that the motley militias of the moderate Syrian rebels or the abysmally led Iraqis are going to be turned into urban assault troops any time in the next decade, and liberating Arabs will not be in Kurdish interests.

It is easier to assist ill-trained troops to defend urban terrain, especially if they have American air power assisting them. This seems to be the case in the defense of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, so containment may be possible. The president has taken the use of American ground troops off the table and no other nation with competent ground forces has stepped up to the plate. His only option is containment.

If our strategy is containment, we should admit it; and the president must be prepared to explain to the American people the risks involved. Mere containment means that a well-financed terrorist group will have sanctuary similar to the one Osama bin Laden enjoyed in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. My preferred option would be to visit the Islamic State before it visits us, but I’m not the president.

Colonel Anderson was chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, which oversaw the Urban Warrior experiments.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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