We will not be successful on the 21st Century battlefield unless we have a 21st Century plan, a mandate. And I believe it must be “peace through strength.” The enemy we are facing, global Islamic jihadism, understands only strength. We will not have peace without it.
When I ponder the current conflagration in which our nation – actually the world – finds itself, I am reminded of this quote by Sun Tzu, from The Art of War:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. We are not in a “War on Terror.” A nation cannot fight a tactic, which is what “terror” is – a means to an end. It would be the same as if we referred to World War II as the “War on the Blitzkrieg” or the”Battle Against the Kamikaze.” In failing to identify the enemy, which some feel is unnecessary, we find ourselves at a clear disadvantage in achieving victory, as Sun Tzu would postulate. As well, when we fail to recognize the global Islamic jihadist movement, we lack the lucid ability to understand the history, goals, and objectives of this enemy who consistently articulates their designs, only to be discarded or dismissed strategically.
So the question becomes how does the United States of America face ISIS, an unlawful enemy combatant on the modern 21st century battlefield? Let us use the quote of Sun Tzu to present a policy direction and solution to engage and defeat not just ISIS – but the global Islamic jihad.
In order to defeat ISIS and the global Islamic jihad movement we must develop strategic imperatives, which, at this time, we lack. By simply stating tactical level tasks from a strategic venue we are deceiving ourselves. It’s quite easy to throw out words like degrade, defeat, destroy and not realize each of those words has a very different definition to a military planner. If we will admit to ourselves who this enemy is and their desire is to control territory, we can begin to assert our understanding of their intent.
Right now, we’re repeating a terrible mistake as we did in Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to come to power and hold territory. Their local movement became allied with the global intentions of Al Qaeda and one Osama bin Laden. The result was not just the establishment of a savage, barbaric 7th century state but also the exportation of a vile ideology rooted in the execution of terrorist activities.
Therefore, the first strategic imperative is to deny the enemy sanctuary. This simply means we must commit to enemy-oriented rather than terrain-oriented operations. We must go where the enemy is seeking to establish its base of operations. Where we have failed to this point is focusing on nation building and not the conduct of simultaneous strike operations. The message we must send to the enemy – whom we must define – is that we will not be deterred from engaging if they seek respite within defined national borders.
Also, let’s be honest. Drones are an asset but not a strategic panacea and certainly not a strategy. Drones are a tool that should be employed at the operational or perhaps even the tactical level. The last thing that we need is a repeat of Vietnam when airstrikes were being approved from the White House. We must employ the greatest advantage we possess which is our strategic mobility – not Whack-A-Mole – but area denial. One of the critical facts we accept about the enemy is that we must be willing to take the fight to them if they do not respect borders and boundaries.
The second strategic imperative to achieve victory against ISIS and the global Islamic jihad is to cut off their flow of men, materiel and resources. We must interdict their lines of communications and support. Any enemy must be able to replenish its ranks and we must find those transit routes and sever them. This is where we must come to understand this is not just about the non-state, non-uniform belligerents, it is also about the nation-states which sponsor them and support their activities. We have to follow the money. At the strategic level, this is where we employ our economic national power to cut off the support to these jihadist groups such as ISIS – but also Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban, Al Aqsa Martyrs, Abu Sayyaf, and all the rest. We should work with allies to develop a better system to track the movements of jihadists seeking to enter into designated hot zones, such as the Syrian area of operations, which has become the base of operations for ISIS.
The third strategic imperative involves the second element of national power – information. We must win the information war. Our reticence in the West to castigate an enemy, such as ISIS, in a negative perspective is confounding. Our own media sources spent more resources droning on about Abu Ghraib in Iraq than firmly focusing on who ISIS is and the atrocities of Islamic jihadism. We continue to use the worn out excuse that we do not want to “offend Muslims.” We do not have to do that, but we cannot abdicate the responsibility to win the war against their propaganda. We cannot be successful and victorious against this enemy if we lack the intestinal fortitude to simply declare who they are and what they do as evil.
The last strategic imperative necessary to achieve success against ISIS and the global Islamic jihad is to cordon off the enemy and reduce their sphere of influence. We must shrink the enemy’s territory. Sadly, we are not effective in disallowing the promulgation and proliferation of Islamist ideology. And, mistakenly here in the United States, we are allowing this ideology a base of operations under the guise of freedom of religion, not wanting to recognize when an ideology is in conflict with our fundamental principles and values. Case in point: the continued characterization of Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood as “workplace violence” – when the truth has been uncovered in his trial. If we do not cordon off the exportation of Islamic jihadism, you will have movements, such as ISIS, grow even more widespread.
These four strategic imperatives could translate into operational theater imperatives, as well. We must grasp the concept that we do not have a war in Afghanistan or a war in Iraq. We have combat theaters of operation and those commanders need concise, strategic level guidance in order to develop their own. Ask yourself right now, who is the operational theater commander in the Iraq/Syria AO (area of operations)? When we have clear strategic and operational level imperatives, then we have better guidance to issue to tactical level commanders.
At the tactical level there are five imperatives: find, fix, engage, destroy and pursue. These imperatives are nested in the overall strategic and operational level objectives. We must utilize our intelligence assets to find the enemy and deny them sanctuary. When the enemy is found we must use strategic and operational level assets to fix the enemy in place, interdicting their flow of support. When the enemy is fixed in place and denied the ability to re-position, it becomes easier at the tactical level to engage them with available weapon systems and achieve the desired effect of destroying them in place. However, that is not the end. We must support our tactical level forces in pursuing the enemy to bring about its complete destruction, not allowing the enemy to escape, which is what happened in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan.
These strategic, operational and tactical imperatives are enemy-focused and their success depends on our knowing the enemy – not dismissing their goals, objectives and declared intentions.
We can no longer become mired down in the business of nation building. We must redesign our focus on conducting strike operations, simultaneously across the battlefield. This means we must move toward a power projection force instead of a Cold War era forward deployed force structure. One of the most immediate things we need to do is restructure our military, not based on budget dollars, but rather geographic Area of Responsibility of the Combatant Commanders (PACOM, EUCOM, AFRICOM, SOUTHCOM, and CENTCOM). This can be done in a fiscally responsible way and must be based upon deployable forces from maritime and aerial platforms. Sadly, we are going in the wrong direction by decimating our armed force structure. We need to construct a 21st century military that can contend with the fluid situation of state and non-state actors across the combatant commands. If you look at our force structure we are playing a shell game, shifting forces here and there instead of having dedicated forces which will be able to conduct operations to deny the enemy establishing itself. Again, this is not about developing large bases but the ability to launch and strike the enemy with lethal and ferocious force, as we saw in a 90-day campaign that dislodged the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan.
A critical aspect of knowing ourselves and redesigning our military is the solidification of strategic partnerships. We don’t need to show up with massive 100,000 force structures. Remember, our goal is no longer nation building. But, by utilizing Brigade/Regimental combat task force formations, we can work with other nations and bring to bear a potent capability and capacity. The Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) has to become a model for deploying force structures. So here is my recommendation: the U.S. Army needs to move toward the same type of structure. It is time to break the phalanx and think differently. An Army Brigade task force needs to have a multiple force component and yes, I believe we should transfer the A-10 Warthog to the U.S. Army to ensure we have timely, close air support for the ground commander; remember the tactical imperative to engage the enemy with available weapon systems. And, anyone telling me the U.S. Army cannot learn to deploy from maritime assets has forgotten when the U.S. 10th Mountain Division was loaded onto an aircraft carrier for a potential operation into Haiti.
We must understand peace does come through strength, and the ability to have capable forces deployed at the ready is a deterrent. I do not subscribe to being a global police force but these are extraordinary times where we have an enemy beheading and crucifying innocents. This enemy is forcing a mass migration of civilian personnel that will have domestic ramifications for Western nations. ISIS and the global Islamic jihad can be defeated and its ideology delegitimized, but someone has to lead and that responsibility does fall to the United States.
I believe a critical, determining factor in the redesign of our military is not designating our Department of Defense leadership positions as rewards for political patronage, but instead finding leaders who understand the three levels of warfare and have been on the receiving end of an AK-47 during a firefight.
We must have elected officials who understand that not every dollar in Washington, D.C. is equal and that our military cannot be the bill payer for inane fiscal irresponsibility. We produce strategic reviews and studies that create mountains of paper that few read and no one implements. We have a defense industrial complex that tells the military what it needs based on the whims of Congressional members who are concerned with jobs programs in their respective districts and states. We have a research and development, acquisition, and procurement system heavily weighed down and constrains our warfighters’ ability to get timely weapon systems.
I close by repeating Sun Tzu’s quote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
In this current conflagration against ISIS and the global Islamic jihad, we refuse to know the enemy. We struggle to know ourselves, and are decimating our military capability and capacity. Therefore, we find ourselves not winning the battle. We lost in Vietnam, not from the tactical level, but from the strategic level. Let us not allow history to repeat itself.