After writing, teaching, and speaking about strategy (in all its forms, from military and business, to national and homeland security) for 28 years, I can tell you that Strategy is a lot more complicated and uncertain than it seems at first glance. Many important facts remain hidden until too late. Many human beings do not react as predicted. There are lots of what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns.” In the face of this reality, the most important single question a strategist can ask (and answer) is this: “When I take the actions I am considering, how will my opponent react? What will happen next?”
Let’s jump over all the current discussions about Constitutional powers and Congressional prerogatives, and get right down to the key strategic question: If President Obama sends US troops, aircraft, allies, and equipment to Iraq and Syria with the mission of destroying ISIS in three years and without expanding the war . . . what will happen next?
Answer: With the President, the Congress and the American people all reluctant to expand the war, ISIS is likely to play to those fears by EXPANDING THE WAR. There are several ways they could go about this.
They could expand the war by encouraging copy-cat insurrections in other Muslim countries. Al Qaeda affiliates and Iranian surrogates have already planted roots in countries from Morocco to Pakistan, and deep into central Africa. The ISIS media campaign of slick snuff films that so appalls Western sensibilities is pushing these groups toward ever more savage confrontations with their governments, just to remain competitive for recruits and contributions. A couple of attacks like the Taliban murder of more than a hundred school children in Pakistan, but focused on royal targets in the Arabian peninsula, could force America to choose between leaving our Arab allies to their fate, or expanding the war into those countries. As ISIS is threatened at home, it can distract the forces attacking it by spreading the war to its flanks.
Another option for ISIS would be to expand the type of war within the conflict’s current boundaries by adding terrorist attacks (as opposed to conventional main force attacks, which has been their strategy to date) against key resources -- especially in rear areas and populated places. A concerted terror campaign against the newly vetted, created and trained Iraqi Army brigades scheduled to do the bulk of the fighting in retaking ISIS territory could quickly demoralize this force, as well as allied forces. Recently, the airport in Baghdad was closed for days by a single rifle shot that struck a commercial airliner. Last year some Iraqi units were stranded without supplies after attacks on resupply trucks. A concerted terror campaign against the support system for new Iraqi forces or their families might quickly weaken Iraqi resolve.
ISIS could also expand the war to America and Europe through attacks by American and European citizens trained in Iraq and Syria, then returned home to do their worst. The attacks on hotels in Mumbai, the mall in Kenya, the Beslan School in Chechnya, and the newspaper office in Paris all demonstrate how effectively a small band of trained fanatics can expand war into “safe” places. Of course, ISIS runs the risk that such attacks might encourage local resolve to stiffen, not weaken. But pushing the US or others to commit more forces in response to terrorist outrages may serve ISIS’s murderous purpose – as demonstrated in the next point.
Our very presence in Iraq will allow ISIS an opportunity to expand the war to Americans in a different way. Even though the President’s strategy is to keep US “boots on the ground” to a minimum by relying primarily on Iraqi, Kurdish, and Free Syrian troops in the assault, those few US special operations boots present will need lots of American logistical, communications, medical, and air support boots based in nearby places where ISIS can reach them. ISIS could mount attacks on these support facilities and personnel, especially in the “Green-on-Blue” style (false friendlies attacking our troops) that had such a negative effect on American morale in Afghanistan. Look especially for ISIS to broaden operations from attacks into kidnappings of US military personnel, and the even more vulnerable contractors who support them.
Finally, expect to see ISIS expand the ferocity of the war by taking hostages for the purpose of producing videos showing the murder and abuse of US and allied forces – especially women. American media “talking heads” continue to miss the point that pictures of ISIS “troops” torturing, crucifying, beheading, and burning captives increase the popularity of our enemy in the minds of their followers, many of whom want vengeance against those they consider the enemies of Allah. Some Western pundits think ISIS would not add US captives to the victims in those videos, thus running the risk of increasing Western resolve. But those who commit these acts in the name of religion are more likely to see such videos as evidence of divine victory, and a way to demoralize the West. And they might be right about the second part.
ISIS videos that you can’t see because Google, Facebook, and other American sites block them are already reported to show Christian women and girls stripped in public and sold into sexual slavery. What would be the effect of videos showing female American soldiers receiving that treatment? ISIS support in its target demographic would skyrocket. The American public would be outraged. But, would they be moved to demand the reinvasion of Iraq, with tens of thousands more troops and an occupying force that stayed long enough to run ISIS to ground in every last dirt-walled hamlet? Or would they demand removal of American troops from a war we did not have to fight in a place we did not belong? Would the first video of an American female soldier being raped and sold cause Americans to demand an expanded war or a retreat? Would ISIS win either way?
The answer is unknown.
However, what we do know is that our enemy will not wait passively for our precision weapons to destroy them one pickup truck at a time. They will strike back in ways that give us pause, hoping to make us reconsider a war that many now seem to think we will win easily. “Easily” is not the way war works – ever. Right now the rush to war against ISIS is popular. I hope it works. But the time to consider what will happen next is now, before we take the action – not later when we are surprised by what looks inevitable in retrospect.