President Obama announced that the United States will begin stepping up the air campaign against the Islamic State. Depending on who one talks to, the new policy has been variously described as a "very significant counter-terrorism operation" or as a state of war. Regardless of what it might be called, significant air power will be used to attack the group. Apparently, France has agreed to participate, but Turkey has refused the use of bases to support these attacks.
The question is, will air power alone do any serious damage to the forces of the Islamic State? The short answer is no. Air power can hurt them. Air power can slow them down. The use of air power will cause them to change their tactics and procedures, but it won't stop them from their goals. In the words of retired General Michael Haydn, air strikes are like casual sex. It feels good, but no lasting effects are to be expected. While that comment may seem to trivialize a brutal action like bombing people from the air, he is right. Bombing will provide momentary satisfaction that we are doing something, but don't confuse that with real results. At some point a sizable ground force will be needed. Where that ground force comes from is the real question.
There is little doubt that the group variously known as the Islamic State, ISIS, or ISIL, is a menace. It is a menace to those in Syria and Iraq. It is a menace to the entire region from Turkey through Syria an Iraq, to Jordan, and the Levant. Any organization that thinks it is acceptable to routinely kill all males in a captured village and to then systematically rape and kill the women and behead children is clearly a group that has departed from humanity. Confusing its actions with the demands of an Islamic God marks the Islamic State as another Nazi Germany that must be confronted and destroyed.
What is most concerning is the apparent lack of concern by the local states, other than perhaps the Assad government in Syria. The countries with the capability of confronting them, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have shown no sign of doing anything about them.
The Kurdish Peshmerga and the Sunni tribes in eastern Iraq may be ready to fight, but the government of Iraq remains uncertain as to what it can and should do. Saudi Arabia has an interest in destroying the Islamic State, but has taken no action, at least not publicly. ISIL has made statements to the effect that it desires the removal of the Saud family and to take over control of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
Thinking of the Islamic State as a foreign entity similar to any other country may offer some insight into how to attack it. While the United States and other states will be reticent to give the Islamic State the stature of a "state," to deny that it already has many of the qualities of a state can be helpful. The group claims territoriality, however contested. It claims a populace, however it may abuse them. It has an identifiable leadership and government with a foreign policy that controls a military force.
Therefore, attacking ISIL is unlike attacking an amorphous "terrorist" organization that can blend into the indigenous population. While what we have learned about countering insurgencies will be useful, also thinking about how to attack a country with defined boundaries and infrastructure will guide us well.
Still, we must avoid convincing ourselves that we can somehow successfully fight the Islamic State with air power alone. Our love affair with video games have led some to believe that warfare is little more than "servicing targets." If war was only a matter of destroying targets then it would be won when all targets are destroyed. If we have learned anything after millenia of wars, and especially our experience in the past two centuries, war is clearly more than "servicing targets."
So, what must be done to defeat the Islamic State? As former President Clinton recently said, ISIS can be degraded and defeated, but only if those who it is abusing decide to fight. He is correct. Without that component, air power will only slow them down.
First, redouble efforts to raise a real coalition that can provide serious resources to include military and economic power. The coalition must include not only NATO allies but local forces. If Jordan and Saudi Arabia refuse to get involved, it will be tough slog. If Iraq can't get its act together, it will be a tough slog. If Turkey refuses to get involved, it will be tough slog. All of those countries have much to lose if the Islamic State succeeds. That point needs to be made clearly and emphatically. Such efforts may require bribes, threats, and dirty tricks, but it is necessary.
Second, the United States needs to actually declare war on the Islamic State. While such a declaration brings with it a danger of offending certain parts of the Islamic World, it will make it clear to other countries that the United States is firmly on a path to destroy them. Getting a declaration of war will require a level of cooperation between the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats that has been hard to find in recent decades. However, without such cooperation and steely nerve, others, to include the Islamic State will perceive weakness and lack of will.
Third, the President needs to establish a firm national grand strategy that transcends the presence of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other offshoots. Fighting such groups is a necessary piece of a grand strategy, but to confuse that is to confuse tactics with strategy and strategy with grand strategy. What are the guiding principles upon which American strategic direction will be decided. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been bouncing in a reactionary mode from one crisis to another with no guiding principles.
Fourth, think the long game. Yes, we have been fighting a "Long War" for nearly a decade and half. One reason it has dragged on so long, however, is that we have been trying to get out of the war and thus never planned for a long operation. Thinking long will better prepare us to make the decisions that will permit us to plan for the end game. What will happen if we corner the Islamic State leadership and army. What will happen in the even a power vacuum opens such as the one that opened in northern Syria that permitted the Islamic State to rise in the first place.
And fifth, the American people need to get over thinking that we can just ignore the Islamic State and withdraw onto our island continent.
War is nasty business. The Islamic State knows that. It has decided to use brutality and unrestrained force a means to their end. They are quite sure that the United States and its allies are incapable of fighting the long war. They are quite convinced that the United States has no will to fight. They are quite sure that they are on the right side of history and have a god that will support them. They are quite sure that the West stole their Islamic Empire from them and believe they will restore the caliphate. Those beliefs keep their fires burning and encourage young men, and now some young women, to join their cause.
So, sixth, we need to make absolutely sure that anyone thinking they might want to join the Islamic State has no delusions about what is happening. Brutal publicity of exactly what they are doing to people must be brought forth. Every means to showing that such brutality is far beyond anything humans ought to be doing to other humans.
And, seventh, whenever a country gets their hands on one of their citizens who thought it was a good idea to join the Islamic State, that individual will find that their citizenship has been rescinded and they will find themselves immediately in the legal system defending their actions. If Congress wants to do something, they need to provide the necessary legal provisions. We don't need any bills of attainder, but merely statutes that clearly state that citizens who take certain actions in support of entities like the Islamic State will find their citizenship in question.
We must not convince ourselves that merely dropping bombs on terrorists will win the day. We must not think that air power and special forces are somehow all that is necessary. If we are not ready to take the necessary actions we must steel ourselves for another Nazi-like regime with policies of brutality and ethnic cleansing and, ultimately a much larger and more expensive war.