While ISIS can, and must, be defeated as soon as possible, it is wrong to suggest that America should lead the fight. In fact, it must be done without further U.S. ground units as even the threat of intervention by American troops plays directly into the enemy's strategy. Psychologically attuned and media savvy, ISIS employs tactics specifically designed to push Western emotional hot-buttons and are used with the sole purpose to draw us further into the fray. Unfortunately, we continually play their game thus exacerbating the situation and assisting in their sophisticated recruitment efforts.
The first step is to acknowledge that this is a religious war, albeit predominantly intra-Islamic in nature. It is most important to note that it is those nations in the region that have the most to lose if ISIS continues its barbaric aggression. Thousands of Muslims have been ruthlessly slaughtered while only a handful of foreigners have died, albeit in very high profile cases. Therefore, this war must be fought by the Islamic nations of the Middle East. Strategically, there is both a long and short game, and it may take intervention by strange and uncomfortable bedfellows to accomplish the mission.
To understand the issues, a great description of the threat is found in Graeme Wood's article "What ISIS Really Wants," published this week in The Atlantic. Two critical issues stand out. First, in order to establish their caliphate, ISIS must hold territory. The second is their apocalyptic vision; one that anticipates near extermination of their fighters before final victory. Rather than fearing death, as do most Westerners, ISIS combatants view it as a reward. While acknowledging you cannot kill an idea, the requirement to hold land is the Achilles heel of ISIS. What can be done is to physically eliminate the ISIS occupation of all lands they have subjugated. Air power alone is insufficient and waiting to retrain the Iraqi army requires too much time.
As an alternative, a coalition of ground forces from Islamic countries should be established to completely defeat all ISIS elements. Over the past decades the U.S. and our European allies have spent billions of dollars equipping and training many of the military forces of the region. Egypt has over 460,000 active duty troops and the second largest armored force in the region. Traditionally oriented to the east, they currently are not under threat from Israel and could send divisions west into Libya to overwhelm and destroy the ISIS threat in Northern Africa. From the south, Jordan has an active duty force of over 90,000 with 12 tank battalions and 10 mechanized infantry battalions. They have already joined the air campaign and are plagued by huge numbers of refugees. On the north, Turkey, with at least 43 combat regiments, has sat idly on the sidelines and watched ISIS come to their borders. They too have been impacted by refugees fleeing ISIS.
Iraq must be prepared to accept assistance from old enemies. Iran, a predominantly Shia nation, has more than half a million troops including nearly 3,000 tanks and armored fighting vehicles that could provide a formidable force. They have already engaged ISIS with air power and created some interesting and counter-intuitive command, control and coordination problems. The UAE, while smaller, has contributed air power. They could send some of their armored brigades as well. Then too there is Saudi Arabia with an armored force of well over 6,000 fighting vehicles. Although Sunni, the Saudi Arabian rulers are viewed as apostates by ISIS and thus it poses a direct threat to them.
Acknowledging the enormity and complexity of the existing geopolitical circumstances in that volatile area, the ISIS threat is sufficiently grave to each and every participant that accommodations could be worked out. It is not necessary for all of the nations to participate. However, they are all at risk and have domestic stability issues. Destroying this incipient nominal caliphate will aid their internal equilibrium. Recognizing there are disaffected elements in most countries in the Middle East, ISIS is only a real danger as long as they have the perceived legitimacy that comes with holding territory. With that coveted space eliminated, potential recruits have no place to go and can be dealt with individually which is far less dangerous than engaging a modestly cohesive body that ISIS now provides.
Another important step should be for the U.S., and every other Western country, to terminate the passports of anyone who has joined ISIS. The idea that we allow citizens to actively engage in terrorism or war with ISIS and then return home is specious. We probably cannot stop all potential recruits from going, but we can make it a one-way trip.
The U.S. should not lead this inevitable conflict and we must resist the urge to do so. With unparalleled intelligence capabilities we can provide an Islamic coalition with a vastly enhanced advantage. Additional logistical support can be afforded. Our domestic efforts should be focused on countering ISIS recruitment and eliminating any residual threats that may have been imported already. The bottom line is we need to transition the fight to an Islamic military coalition and have no American combat units on the ground.